I have never read a comic book in my life. To the many of you who are now automatically writing off my opinions on the Batman movies, let me please remind you that I’m writing about movies. I respect comics as an art form, and they have been fodder for some great movies (namely Superman, the Spider-Man trilogy, Ghost World, and that’s literally it) but the truth is, I don’t really know a thing about comics. I do love the idea of them, though. What’s not to love? I like heroes and villains and crazy costumes.
When I was a little kid I loved Batman. I got into the campy Batman TV show when I was about four and started collecting Batman action figures. I remember when the cartoon came out, it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. At the time, I was too young to see Tim Burton’s Batmans. They came out when I was three and five, respectively. And by the time they were age-appropriate for me, I had already moved on to dinosaurs and Spielberg.
Like everybody though, I have seen all of the Batman movies. Unlike everybody, I know that the only one that is good is Batman Forever. I’ll explain, but first, I have a lot to say about the other Batman movies, and I’d rather just say all them all here in one long, meandering essay than have to write separate ones.
The Burton Ones
It’s easy to forget that Tim Burton is awesome. His career probably has the most significant drop-off of anybody in history—and that includes Rob Reiner and Gwen Stefani. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Ed Wood are great movies. Batman and Batman Returns are… okay. I mean, the casting is phenomenal. Despite what most of you may think, Michael Keaton is actually a superb choice for Batman. Keaton is handsome and likable, yet oddly smarmy, making him mysterious. He juggles that dichotomy in a way that keeps your eyes glued to him. The epitome of a ‘leading man’—a concept that has unfortunately been lost on a culture that for some reason considers meek character actors up to the same task. (Actors like Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg are great, but they are not leading men. They are the results of an ‘everybody gets a trophy day’ culture that champions ‘cool nerds’, ‘random jokes’, and ‘awkward’ social situations.)
Keaton’s supporting players are equally brilliant and perfectly cast. Jack Nicholson (one of the best actors of all time) is perfect as the Joker, Danny DeVito is fucking awesome as The Penguin, and Michelle Pfeiffer is great as Catwoman. Heck, Billy Dee Williams is even good as Harvey Dent. And who can forget Jack Palance as Carl Grissom?
It’s a shame the movies are so boring and claustrophobic. The boringness is mostly the result of the time period they were made in. Most movies were boring around that time. Not really Tim Burton’s fault. The claustrophobia has to do with Burton’s inability to handle sets well, which is definitely a part (albeit a small one) of the failure of all his movies to follow. Batman very blatantly looks like it’s staged on a set, and it shouldn’t. (Just like his god-awful Planet of the Apes remake.)
Overall, as a director for hire, at the height of his career, Burton does a decent job with Batman, and that’s basically where they reside in history—decent movies, hazily remembered.
The Schumacher Ones
Joel Schumacher hit a dazzling home run on his first try with Batman Forever and then struck out abysmally with Batman and Robin. Like I said, I’ll discuss Batman Forever at the end of this essay, but for now, I’d just like to point out that when it came out, people actually liked Batman Forever. At the time, Jim Carrey ruled the world, Val Kilmer wasn’t fat and weird yet, and there was really nothing to dislike about it.
Two years later, Batman and Robin came out and tainted the legacy of Batman Forever. Superficially, the two films appear the same. (As they should, both being helmed by Schumacher.) But where Batman Forever is the perfect stylistic mix of the campy fun and clever seriousness that epitomizes the Batman universe, Batman and Robin is laughably bad. The villains are nonsensical and miscast, and the addition of Bat Girl was unnecessary (despite being played by my and everyones boyhood crush, Alicia Silverstone).
It also suffers from the same problem that all comic book movie franchises suffer from, which is that when the first one does well, the studio thinks they need to ‘out do it’ with the second, and instead just end up cramming it with craziness. This famously happened to Spiderman 3, which was forced out of Raimi’s hands and ruined in exactly the same way: too many characters, causing the story to become unwieldy and needlessly long. It’s impossible for an audience to care about what’s happening when the script has being mired with exposition in order to explain the various needless subplots. The director loses any and all opportunities to create tension.
And so, it failed. Miserably. And people got excited about Batman Begins because it was new and ‘dark’ and wasn’t Batman and Robin. In fact, Batman and Robin left such an awful taste in everyones mouth that they didn’t even take the time to differentiate it from it’s infinitely better counterpart Batman Forever. To this day, people often confuse the two—a true testament to the pervasive and powerful suckiness of Batman and Robin. And also, an illustration of the apathy of audiences.
The Nolan Ones
In the wake of any franchise flop, the studio gives us time to collect ourselves and then proceeds to bungle together the ‘new’ version of the thing, with the promise that it’ll be ‘totally different’ and therefore ‘better’. Different, it was.
Batman and Robin is not good, but it’s at least watchable, and oddly charming in its cheesiness. Batman Begins is so bland it’s a wonder anybody stayed awake long enough to even pretend they liked it. It’s filled with boring characters and dull, sloppily rushed-through conversations. Its action sequences are tepid and full of stock cliches. It’s a completely forgettable, over-crammed mess that plays more like a two-hour trailer than a movie.
A good example of the over-crammed-ness is Alfred and Lucius Fox. These two people are the same character—they fulfill the same purpose in the story. (I suspect that Lucius Fox was never included in a single previous movie because whoever was making them knew this.) Fanboys championed the addition of Lucius Fox because they like Morgan Freeman and because ”he’s in the comics!” Well, who cares? If it doesn’t make for a better movie, what’s the point? Again, I appreciate comics, but let’s keep in mind that they’re their own separate art form. Movies function differently, and by virtue, cannot be expected to juggle as many balls in the air.
And while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about Alfred. Who doesn’t love Michael Caine? But he’s no Alfred. He’s no Alfred because Michael Caine is a scene stealer, he’s a leading man, he’s dashing and he draws your attention. The charm of Alfred, the character, is that he’s subtle. He appears meek in his stewardship, which helps magnify his insightful tidbits that are sprinkled gingerly at opportune times. This is exactly how he was cast and utilized in Batman Forever. The casting of Caine is an obvious suck up to the box office with no regard for serving either the character or the story. Further evidence of this is how fucking boring his scenes are. In both films, Lucius and Alfred just seem to regurgitate ‘important’ speeches. Guys, you’re like butlers or something. Calm down.
There’s a scene at the end of The Dark Knight where Fox has built some weird Hackers-esque sonar cellphone map thing that will help Batman save people or something. But then, just to slow the movie down and remind us that we’re supposed to be sleeping, Fox launches into some antiquated speech about people’s privacy and the morality of that. Blah blah blah. Batman’s response should have been ”Hey. Dickhead. I’m not using this to steal their fucking PIN numbers. I’m trying to save their lives. Cool it with the speeches. Fuck.”
The Nolan Batmans suffer from many things, but the most blatant and detrimental thing is the modern M.O. of taking itself way too seriously. Superhero movies are stupid. They’re about crazy weirdos who wear capes and costumes and shoot lasers or web or whatever. These movies are not supposed to take themselves completely seriously. And the characters shouldn’t, either. Every now and then they should wink at us (in some capacity) and let us know they know how silly it is. Modern movies think that’s ‘passe’, and so they’ve let The Nothing from The Neverending Story suck them into a dark oblivion where everyone wears a scowl, emotes like a stage actor from the 40’s, and takes ridiculous things very fucking seriously. But where’s the fun in that? And where’s the believability in that? I believe Graboids are attacking the town in Tremors because the characters are like ‘What the fuck is going on? This make no sense.’
Nolan’s Gotham is a boring, nondescript American city, with inhabitants who are completely apathetic and over-serious and humorless. Nolan’s Batman is a gravely-voiced, uninteresting asshole. And yet, The Dark Knight is loved by all (but not really: everyone that likes it secretly knows it sucks—they just don’t care).
When it was announced that Heath Ledger would be playing The Joker, people freaked out. “The pretty boy from 10 Things I Hate About You!? What!?” But while everyone was up in arms because they didn’t want their beloved character tarnished, my interest was piqued. Heath Ledger is a fine actor, and there was nothing to me that said he couldn’t be the Joker. Then, the movie came out, and his fantastic Al Franken impersonation got everybody to pretend they never questioned the choice. Heath Ledger is good in the movie, albeit one note, but that’s not his fault. That’s on the writer.
I’ll admit, when the movie started, I was into it. The first scene is good. Bill Fichtner pulls out a shotgun and starts going nuts in his bank, and the truck elegantly wisps into the line of trucks. It felt like a harkening to a time when movies were cool. But then, suddenly, it didn’t. People started talking. And talking. And then they were in China, for some reason.
Really the only good scene after the bank robbery is the one where the Joker comes in and says to a group of bad guys “you guys have a Bat problem and I’m crazy enough to solve it.” I like when he kills the guy by slamming his head on the pencil. What should’ve ensued after that scene was a tight, clever, cat-and-mouse game between Batman and The Joker, where the two bait each other and dig at each other in roundabout ways until finally having a big, cool fight with Gotham as the backdrop. Instead what we got was a movie so crammed with boring, ‘nothing’ scenes that I defy you to remember anything that happened other than the Joker moments (which were ‘cool’, but certainly not worth liking a whole movie over).
The Dark Knight, like Batman Begins, is an endless mess. A movie with absolutely no tension, no dynamic range, and no one to care about. The main character, I guess, is Harvey Dent, followed by maybe the Joker, and then I guess Batman. Batman should have been our anchor. But Nolan and Bale have fashioned a wholly unlikeable Bruce Wayne, a one-dimensional asshole playboy that nobody can root for. (Though I guess we aren’t even given enough time to get to know him and possibly like him, since we’re too busy following Harvey Dent for some reason.)
Harvey Dent is introduced, built up, and then just killed in the end. Which is funny. It’s funny to me because it not only proves that the whole movie was really about him, but it also exemplifies the movies’ failures. You spend an entire movie building up a character that is supposed to be in the periphery, your arcs are supported by said character, and you are working inside a franchise that will (hopefully) continue on—yet you kill that character in the end. And now we don’t get to see Two-Face wreaking havoc. It’s an epic case of blowing the load too early. We spent three hours giving him an origin story, just to wipe him up with a kleenex and throw him away.
Despite all these valid complaints, the only thing fans of the movie will allow me to be annoyed about is the comically bad Batman voice. Whenever I press anyone to explain what the fuck they were doing in China (or why we, the viewer, should care) nobody has any answers. Nobody has any answers because that misstep—and all the others I wrote about—aren’t what they even care about. People love The Dark Knight simply because of its ‘cool’ factor. They’re seduced by the ‘dark’ look and feel (which David Fincher trail-blazed and does infinitely better). I’m talking about the generic, ‘atmospheric’ dark score; the crushed black, puke-y looking color palette; the epic (cheesy) dialogue. Nolan’s Batmans are a modern stylistic monolith erected solely to get big box office numbers. They are proof that horrible storytelling can be made up for by manufactured ‘cool’.
Further proof of this may be that the best Batman movie, the one with the best story, told with the most zest and artistry, is wholly ignored, even fluffed off. As you know by now, I’m talking about Batman Forever.
And So Now Let’s Talk About Batman Forever Finally
Again, I don’t read comics, so they aren’t sacred to me. They’re interesting, and I certainly respect them as the womb of so many wonderful characters and ideas, but a movie is a movie and a comic is a comic. Also, and more importantly, just because Batman was a comic first doesn’t mean that only what was created in comics is ‘Batman’. Batman is a character found is several art forms: comics, television (a cartoon and a live action series) and movies. These all help shape him in some way. They each have something to contribute. The live-action TV show was campy and silly. We all know this and we all know that although it’s funny, it might not be the best representation of such a cool character. So naturally, when the cartoon came out and when Burton made his movies, they, stylistically, reverted back to an idea of a Batman that is dark and mysterious. I think that’s fair. However, what I also think is fair is an attempt at an amalgamation of all Batmans.
That’s what Batman Forever attempts, and it accomplishes it in spades. It skillfully walks a very delicate line between camp and darkness, essentially by putting everything that is Batman in a blender and making a delicious Batman smoothie. (Hey, that’s the name of the essay!)
Batman Forever tells the origin story of Batman, via flashback, and is very much about Bruce Wayne. He is the main character, and it is an interesting portrayal of an interesting character (performed marvelously by Val Kilmer). He is quite believable as a sensitive but confident billionaire with a vigilante vice.
Schumacher’s vision of Gotham is the most artful. In the Nolan films, the establishing shots just look like New York or Chicago. Burton’s vision might be more interesting than Nolan’s, but they suffer from the shoddiness I mentioned earlier. Schumacher’s however capture an urban landscape that is twisted and lived-in. An old-world city, bustling with a European feel, but dreadfully modern and foreboding.
Batman Forever has a lot of characters (which I typically hate) and in lesser hands’, perhaps that would’ve been too many. But the powers-that-be used them aptly this time. We even have genuine sympathy for the The Riddler, who is introduced brilliantly as a put-upon scientist (bent on destruction, of course). The Riddler, the character, is perfect fodder for Jim Carrey’s antics, and he doesn’t disappoint. (Duh. It’s Jim fucking Carrey.) What’s refreshing however is that Tommy Lee Jones delights as Two Face. Lee’s over-the-top zaniness actually matches Carrey’s beat for beat, and their scenes together are terrific. In fact, Schumacher actually compensates for what could’ve been a very flat scene (the scene where The Riddler first meets Two Face) by doing an exquisite push-in on Carrey when he announces his name—which is then cartoonishly interrupted by Jones. Brilliance. They’re a great pair. And Schumacher shoots them remarkably. His compositions are exacting and precise and often turn what could be bland moments into thrilling set pieces.
If casting is 90% of directing, then Nolan is by far the most epic failure. His only real triumph is Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, Eric Roberts as that mob guy, and Tom Lennon as the doctor in the third one. Burton’s are well-cast and not all that bad, but ultimately forgettable. With Batman Forever, it seems that Schumacher had the best handle over not only casting, but all aspects of the production. It’s too bad his follow up was so comically bad. I blame the casting of Schwarzenegger (and not Schwarzenegger himself). I think the idea of going against type is interesting, but it just didn’t work. Partially because his costume was so fucking stupid and mostly because all of his dialogue was so fucking stupid. But oh well. I guess I really don’t care. To be honest, I don’t care that much about any of this. I like Batman Forever a lot, but I doubt any of this is going to convince you to like it as well. By the way, I know there’s another Batman that I didn’t get to. The Rises one. That one was absolutely unwatchable so I turned it off. It was The Dark Knight sans Joker (so, you know, sans anything interesting). I guess they’re making more of these, too. Ugh.